From 1848 to 1920, thousands of women in the United States fought to attain the same civil and political status as men, including the all-important right to vote. They had a lot working against them: Victorian-era scientists argued that women were by nature inferior to men, even claiming that the shape and size of female skulls were evidence of their weaker brainpower.
One of the largest protests of the suffrage movement happened the day before Woodrow Wilson was to be inaugurated as President in 1913. Between 5,000 to 8,000 suffragists marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the White House — and hundreds of thousands of onlookers.
Organizers Alice Paul and Lucy Burns had secured a permit to march, however, many protesters were assaulted by those in the crowd who opposed the women’s right-to-vote campaign. Attacks ranged from spitting and throwing of objects to all-out physical assaults. While many women were injured, public outrage at the violence translated to wider support for the suffrage movement.
Alice Paul and her friend, Lucy Burns, formed the National Woman’s Party (NWP) in 1916. The group aimed at bringing about a change in the way the government viewed women’s suffrage.
In January 1917, Paul organized the ‘Silent Sentinels’, a group of women who supported the suffrage movement and protested in front of the White House during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. For over two years, thousands of women picketed on every weekday and held banners demanding the right to vote. The protests were non-violent. The women simply carried signs, deliberately remaining peaceful and silent.
Between June and November 1917, police arrested 218 protesters on the trumped up charge of “obstructing traffic.” Several of the picketers were also mercilessly beaten up by the police. Most of these women were imprisoned in the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia.
Usually, after three days in prison, the women were released. But they returned to the White House to continue picketing. The battle between the police and the protesters escalated. Inside the prison, the women faced harsh living conditions, rancid food and the denial of medical care when they were ill. They were denied visitors. Their jailers beat them and confined them to cold, unsanitary, rat-infested cells. Some were placed in solitary confinement.
Alice Paul was arrested October 22, 1917. In late November, still in prison, she went on a hunger strike to protest. She was forcibly fed raw eggs to make her relent.
None of the government’s atrocities could make the women relent and they continued with their demands. Their demonstrations also received widespread media coverage and forced the president’s hand. In the past he claimed the “time is not right”, but on September 30, 1918, Wilson gave a speech to Congress in support of granting women the right to vote.
On August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was finally ratified, enfranchising all American women and declaring for the first time that we, like men, deserve all the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.